Marcia McNutt discusses the findings of energy reports from the National Academy of Sciences

As part of this year’s program of Energy Week at Carnegie Mellon, which consisted of activities related to the energy sector and energy issues facing society, Carnegie Mellon students and members of the community had the chance to attend various lectures given by distinguished professors and scientists working in energy-related fields. Marcia McNutt, who last year became the president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and who was previously the first female editor-in-chief of the journal Science and led the United States Geological Survey, gave one of the lectures.

The lecture began with Dr. Jared Cohon, the director of Scott Institute and former president of Carnegie Mellon, giving a welcome address and thanking the many sponsors of Energy Week. He introduced the role of Scott Institute in addressing today’s energy issues and recognized the attendees who had played a major role in the institute. Next, Provost Farnam Jahanian introduced McNutt with a statement on how science is a core part of America’s national identity while also recognizing Cohon for the work he has done for the university, even after stepping down as university president.

McNutt’s lecture primarily introduced different reports that the NAS has compiled over the years on energy-sector related subjects. First, she briefly described the history of the NAS, which was created by President Lincoln and chartered by Congress for the purpose of advising the legislative body. The NAS puts out around 200 reports a year on widely varying scientific disciplines, but McNutt emphasized that many of them match the themes of Energy Week: policy, research, education, and looking toward the future. Through her lecture, McNutt aimed to showcase how useful these reports can be.

The first report she introduced was a 2016 study, titled “Analytic Research Foundations for the Next Generation Electric Grid,” which described the characteristics that a modernized energy grid should have in order to meet society’s future needs — for example, the need for alternative energy sources for electric cars. The characteristics they found necessary include customer participation, integration of generation and storage options, new markets and operations, high quality of power, operation efficiency and asset optimization, and resiliency against attacks and disasters.

She also emphasized the importance of the grid being able to handle and analyze large amounts of data in real-time in optimizing the performance. As an example of modernizing the grid, McNutt mentioned that her home in California is a home that produces as much energy as it uses via solar panels.

Another significant report was one regarding the potential of using algae and cyanobacteria as sources of future biofuels. Using algae as a biofuel source has several advantages — energy security, no net greenhouse gas emissions, high biomass productivity, and the fact that it doesn’t compete with food, unlike other crops that are grown for biofuels, such as corn. However, the NAS report concluded that more research is still needed to make algal biofuels sustainable in the long run.

McNutt also mentioned a rare two-nation study that was commissioned by both the U.S. and China. Because the U.S. and China are the two top energy consumers of the world, the nations agreed to jointly research areas of renewable energy development which would be ripe for cooperation rather than competition. The collaborative areas identified were basic and pre-commercial research, the proper mapping of production sites, operations and management, recycling materials, and setting standards

Another study that tied together policy and energy identified the impacts of U.S. tax policy on greenhouse gas emissions. The report assesses different facets of U.S. energy-related tax policies — fuel taxes, renewable energy production credits, depletion allowances for oil and gas, home efficiency improvement credits, nuclear decommissioning tax preference, and aviation fuel taxes — on the levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The report concluded that while fuel taxes, production credits, and efficiency improvement credits helped lower greenhouse gases, the depletion allowances and nuclear decommissioning tax preference did not have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

McNutt highlighted one study that she thought was particularly important which discussed the hidden costs of energy sources such as coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, wind, solar, and biofuels. The report concluded that the biggest quantifiable hidden costs were greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. It stated that developing tar sands would worsen both costs while using renewable energy sources would lower them.

McNutt mentioned an array of other studies, on topics from the impact of the Helium Privatization Act to the prospects of LED lighting. She concluded the lecture by thanking several people from Carnegie Mellon who contributed significantly to the reports she presented.

At a post-lecture interview, McNutt was asked about her views on the upcoming March on Science, which will be held in cities nationwide on Earth Day, April 22.

“It is their civic duty to show their support for science, [and] to show that science matters,” she said in response.

She voices her concern whenever she hears people denying well-established climate science, and takes to Twitter to point people in the right direction on the subject. However, she expressed a note of caution to people interested in participating in the march. “I think it’s important that they march for science — that they not march against anything else. I would be concerned if they marched against the budget, or they marched against the administration,” she argued.

Citing her familiarity with the budget process as the former director of the U.S. Geological Survey, she advised that people should not jump to conclusions about policies too early since it generally takes a long time for anything to become law. Her primary concern was that scientists would come across as a special interest group, further politicizing what should be a neutral, fact-based subject. But despite these concerns, she says that voicing support of science is something people “should be doing as citizens.”